Season 1, Episode 19

Space, STEM and Saving the world- A Millenial Perspective


Dr. Mallika Sarma


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Today’s Guest

In today’s episode I am speaking with Dr. Mallika Sarma.

Dr. Mallika Sarma is a Human Biologist specializing in adaptation to extreme environments and is currently Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Human Spaceflight Lab at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is a PH.D. graduate of the department of Anthropology from the University of Notre Dame.

She is an advocate for intersectional feminist and anti-colonial practices in spaceflight research, STEM, and society in general. Mallika is also a Bharatanatyam dancer, competitive olympic weightlifter, student pilot, experimental baker, and avid crocheter.

She lives in Baltimore with her partner, two ridiculous cats, and many, many plants.


If you love the show please leave a rating or a review.

If you have a comment or question please reach out to me at or on Instagram @gladiatrixpodcast


Dr. Mallika Sarma

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Malini Sarma 0:02

Hi, Mallika, thank you so much for taking the time to be on my podcast. I think there is a whole audience of millennials waiting to hear what you have to say.

Mallika Sarma 0:14

Well, I'm happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me to come talk a little bit.

Malini Sarma 0:20

You very welcome. Okay. So, um, you are you have been, you were born and brought up in the United States, your parents are immigrants, they came from India, focus pretty much, but most immigrant parents have just to make sure that their children have better lives and focus has always been on education.

Unknown Speaker 0:41


Malini Sarma 0:42

And you have embraced that pretty much because you love science. You love learning. So how can you talk a little bit about that growing up and your love for science and arts and learning?

Mallika Sarma 0:58

I'm sure. So I mean, I think that my current job is the ideal of someone who loves learning because my job is to literally learn, and then teach about it. I'm currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine on the human spaceflight lab. And I my work looks at how humans adapt to extreme environments. And so I've been very lucky to be able to pursue that my again, my job is to literally learn as much as possible about the human body about human behavior. And all of that comes from a, I guess, my entire life of searching those for those same kinds of questions. But it's not just learning about the science of human physiology, which is very interesting in and of itself. But learning is a well rounded, full bodied mechanism, learning about the arts, learning about culture, learning about music, all of these things are critical to also understanding science, math, education, etc.

Malini Sarma 2:11

Okay, so um, how would you can you talk a little bit more about that, you know, when you say you talk about arts and you talk about music, and you talk about the other aspects, not just the science part, how is how did that influence? Did your upbringing have a lot to do with it? Did your environment the people you interacted with, how did that interest kind of you because you were an anthropologist, how did all of that come together?

Mallika Sarma 3:03

I grew up dancing, doing Indian classical dance Bharatnatyam since I was four years old, I did Carnatic, which is Indian classical music, when I was very young as well. No, I was not as dedicated to carnatic music as I was to dance, music and dance have always been a very central part of my life. I did Western music as well.

But the you know, when you

go down a path of learning, you realize that, like,

the learning arts

and learning about stories and culture, etc, is not too different from learning about sciences. They're all actually very closely interconnected. as

Unknown Speaker 3:45

being a

Mallika Sarma 3:47

musician, being an artist is actually I think, makes me a better scientist, and vice versa. And I think that comes from all throughout my childhood and beyond that, being very involved in everything, like not just sticking to one thing, because I think siloed learning is very bad, actually. It's really stifling, and limited.

Malini Sarma 4:11

Okay. So you're, you're now living on the east coast. Yes. You know, you're living your dream life. I am

Mallika Sarma 4:19

living my dream life.

Malini Sarma 4:20

But you have fought and struggled to stay on course. Right. So what would you say have been your biggest struggles to get where you are today? Well,

Mallika Sarma 4:30

I think that one of the, one of the biggest struggles is recognizing my record, reconciling recognizing and reconciling. But what my path is and what I wish to contribute to the world, and what the world needs and how to do it. So it's very easy, I think, especially as, you know, as a child of immigrants as Indian American to go down and Traditional paths of what is most useful, and I think that are any other desis in the audience listening, it's, you know, being a physician being an engineer, those are the gold standards. There's that joke about Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi, who is giving a very important talk, and her mom was in the audience and someone, someone was sitting next to her and she leaned over. And you know, her daughter is about to get this big award as a CEO of Pepsi. And she's like, Hey, you know, my son's a doctor, right? Like that accurately describes kind of like the Indian American experience. But understanding that there are other mechanisms and other ways to make a difference. And staying true to that, even though it would be much easier to maybe take a path that is more well discovered than something else. It's been a lot of having a lot of faith in myself in my own abilities, and getting as much help as possible to be able to accomplish the things that I felt that the world needed. And hopefully I am correct in that assessment.

Malini Sarma 6:09

So talking about what you feel the world needs. So you would consider yourself a millennial, you're very different outlook to life compared to most of you know, the baby boomer or the older generation, definitely, you have a very, an idealistic view, I would say, an idealistic view, but in your, in your mind, you would say, the world needs to change. So yeah, I know, you have a lot to say about a millenial, and what and how you can contribute to society. So go for it.

Mallika Sarma 6:41

Okay. Well, I would say that,

you know, one of the most important things is that my love and my passion for science and learning and education is not, it's, it's not just singularly what I would like to do, I wish that we could live in a world where individuals could happily pursue their own personal interests, but we don't we live in a world that is filled with other people. And it's our responsibility as members of society as members of a population as human humanity on Earth, that we all take care of each other, and do everything in our power to make the world that we're in a better place. And I'd like to think that a lot of folks in my generation have similar viewpoints in that, you know, I always say that if you're not doing something that is helping, if you're not doing something that is making the world a better place, then what's even the point? Like, why are you doing anything at all. And I think that that, that perspective, really shapes my view on my job. And so like, the fact that I'm looking at this is a pretty niche, specific thing that my research is on, it's looking at human adaptation to extreme environments. But it's very specific to, you know, when we're looking at human habitation beyond Earth, for looking at long term habitation on Mars, other planets, other moons, etc. You know, we want to make sure that we have a good understanding, and I want to do everything in my power to make sure that it is fair and equitable. And just, I think that, as millennials, we have grown up in tumultuous is, is not the right is a is a vast minimization of the kinds of the kinds of events that our life has gone through, especially being a millennial in the United States we are in, I know that this is like a major joke. Internet memes unprecedented times, whether it be the fact that we're living in a global pandemic, and in the United States, we can't seem to get our act together, to move beyond it and come together and try and move forward. We are

Unknown Speaker 8:53

facing a

Mallika Sarma 8:55

fascist regime, we are facing populist behavior violence to degrees that, you know, we as millennials were fed the myth that was over, we did not have racial violence anymore. For for folks that are minorities that were experiencing the racial violence themselves knew that that was never the case. And that was a false mythology. But we were fed the promise that we were in a post racial a better and anti racist America and that is just sadly not the case. You add in there, the vast resource discrepancy discrepancies and disparities, the inequitable systems that are in place and it's hard not to place your career, your choices, the what contributions you're making to the world within the frame of the world as it is. There's a really fantastic meme that I think is really accurate. It is a little dog with the Room on Fire, and they're like drinking coffee and they're like, this is fine. I feel like that is the life of a millenial Every day, but you know, living in that kind of constant crisis is it makes you realize that, as someone with, with privilege with resources, it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to help, right? Whatever in justices are out there. And I think that, you know, part of it is, you know, we're living in a consumer economy, which I personally have trouble with. But so be it. This is the world that we live in. But, you know, understanding how millennials come up with businesses in such that, that are that are sustainable and that are equitable. And you know, if you are if you live in a consumer economy, and you choose the consumptions you make making active choices about supporting folks that are kind of contributing to a better world, as opposed to making things even worse. It's complicated. I think it's complicated, and it's hard. And there's a lot more introspection every single day than anyone would normally expect. I know that it's a lot more introspection every day, then the average baby boomer, probably our age would have would have had to do because before it was just your job for you to succeed, and to make sure that you could take care of yourself and your family. We're living in a world now where you know, you have to take care of yourself and your family, but you should be taking care of like your the entire population, the people around you, because we are all very inherently connected. I know it sounds very crunchy, very hippie, but I think that, you know, the world is on fire, and California literally on fire. And so we have to do what we can to kind of help that. Because if we don't, there will be no Earth, no population for us to even live within.

Malini Sarma 11:58

Okay, so what is your vision? I mean, how do you see what would it What can you do? What can other people do other millennials do? They're probably doing it. But if you had to tell somebody like, you know, these are the things that I need to see change? And what are some of those things?

Mallika Sarma 12:16

So I think, like one of the things that I had just mentioned, I think that, you know, we currently live in a consumer economy and being very intentional about who you choose to support and who you choose to divest, I think becomes very important, you know, supporting your local businesses, local artists, local bakeries, which is my favorite thing to support, I think becomes very important because you're actually supporting community members. And like people that you can see in people that you can help. I think that's a very important thing. There is actually a really fantastic community of young South Asian Dias. Diasporic Millennials, I guess, millennials, Gen Z in the likes, which is a global system. So it's like, I mean, it's local in the sense that their faces that you recognize, but not local, in the traditional sense, where they're like, down the street. But, you know, tying art and history to consumer products, I think becomes really important. And, you know, making sure that you're supporting folks that are committed to equitable and just behaviors and equitable and just consumer systems, I think it becomes really important. That's like one actionable item, I think the other thing is, is education, which I feel really strongly about. I think that every single person who desires an education should have access to an education. As someone who is in kind of like the academic realm, I do as much outreach as possible to try and help promote that access. I know I could be doing a lot more, and I look forward to doing a lot more in that case. There are a lot of folks out there that are extremely smart and extremely talented, and are engaged, but just don't have the resources to do so. And so if you are in a position of privilege, where you have time where you have money, you should be trying to share those resources, share that knowledge in whatever way you can. And like knowledge is not just, you know, math, tutoring, which is great and really helpful and awesome. But if you have knowledge about, you know, folklore, or you know, dance or music, any any knowledge is is good, and you never know how that knowledge can then help people. I think another thing for millennials in particular, when we're caught talking about knowledge, distribution and production, is that

it's sometimes it's really scary and stressful, but I think that When you hear people saying bigoted and problematic things to call them out immediately, even if they are your elders, if they are family members, I can talk from firsthand experience that the continued engagement in conversation about what is bigotry and what is not actually does have an impact on folks that I never thought I would actually make any impact on at all, I didn't think that there would be any dent in changing, you know, very deep, deep rooted perspectives and ideals about certain groups of people. But turns out that intense engaged conversation and you just don't give up and you keep talking to them, and talking and talking, I think actually does make a big difference. And I think that's hard. It's a hard for a lot of millennials, it's hard for, it's hard for a lot of, like, first generation kids like me, because like, you don't want to tell your parents or uncles and Auntie's or grandparents, that maybe their perspectives are really bad, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, etc. But it's our responsibility to change that conversation. And if we just let it slide, then who else is going to tell them? That's not okay. So, I think that I mean, I think that's one of the hardest things to do. I mean, like, you know, making your consumer choices is easy, like, Okay, I'm going to support artists on Etsy, rather than Amazon. Sure, great. But actually having real conversations with your racist uncle, for example, is really difficult. But I think worth having, I think the last, the last thing is that, and I think it's maybe a defining trait of our generation and generations moving forward is the importance and the attention to self care. In the world, as I have mentioned, feels like it's on fire all the time. And so it's extremely important to recognize, like, if you're going to be giving back, if you're going to be working within your community, as much as you are, that you yourself is also an individual that deserves kindness and deserves compensation, and deserves care, and to take the time to do the things that make you happy. One of the things that makes me extremely angry in the conversations degrading millennials is the whole like, Oh, well, if you stopped spending money on lattes, then maybe you could afford a house or if you stopped eating avocado toast, maybe you could afford a house, we all know, especially in quarantine, no one's going out and eating avocado toast. Like that's not the case, it's their larger systemic problems. And so to, to place the, to place the responsibility, and like to blame individuals for systemic problems, is a tactic that is used all the time, to not make to not promote change, to make sure that things stay in the status quo. If you blame people for their individual choices, like oh, well, you as an individual, clearly are not doing enough, like you're not composting. So you're, you know, the environment is degrading, as opposed to maybe we should stop offshore drilling to the extent that we are maybe we should stop massive greenhouse gases, etc. And like factory production, which are larger systemic issues, that's how you make sure that nothing actually happens. And so recognizing the difference between that making sure you're taking care of yourself, and recognizing the difference between things that require individual change, versus things that require systemic change, for systemic change to happen. It's a lot of effort. It's a lot of work, and it's really hard. And so you should take care of yourself, so that you can actually have the energy to make that happen eventually.

Malini Sarma 18:40

Okay. I agree with a lot of the stuff that you said, except for the last part, when you said, you know, you can't you cannot believe in individuals with systemic problems. But don't you think that it starts at the grassroot level, it starts with an individual, one person making a change, and then that will kind of spread you know, the person sees a change and tries to change one other person. And then that's how you make the difference.

Mallika Sarma 19:03

I mean, I don't I don't disagree that one person can make a difference. But for something like I think one of the best examples actually is, like plastics use, and thinking about the difference between individual scapegoating versus systemic change that actually needs to happen. Um, like, telling people that they can use straws, versus the plastics industry as a whole, like straws are such a tiny fractional component of what's happening with the with the plastics industry as a whole. And so like, that kind of blaming individuals is just a tactic of making sure that actual change doesn't happen. I think there's a there's a distinct difference between individual action and grassroots level action versus individual culpability, if that makes sense. Yeah. So like, an individual can make a difference and it requires a lot of work and a lot of effort. And that's I'm saying that I'd like indvidual cares, really. important, but also so is recognizing when you are being scapegoated as the individual that is responsible for giant systemic problems when it is, when it is a much larger, it is a much larger systemic thing that needs that needs to change. Okay?

Malini Sarma 20:18

Yep, no. Okay, that makes sense. So as a millennial also, the other thing I've noticed is the difference in how you communicate what is picked up a little bit out, and you know, how you use the social media and other forms of communication, too, to let people especially of the baby boomer generation now, because baby boomers are not tech savvy, right, they're more used to doing it the old fashioned way. Whereas millennials in I know I'm generalizing, but they tend to be more with devices, you know, whether it's on the it's on their phone, or Instagram, they'd rather not talk on the phone, but they'd rather send a message. How would you say that communication with millennials is different? And how does that affect how the message that you're trying to, to promote?

Mallika Sarma 21:13

So I, I think that it's not necessarily a question of savviness? I think that there are plenty of baby boomers that are probably a lot more tech savvy than me, for example, with you're considering, like, how does technology work? And how does it function, but I think that the, the key difference is how technology shapes our understanding of communities and relationships in the world around us. I think that is where the distinction is not necessarily the ability to use tech. But how tech shapes the world. I think one thing that has been really fantastic and amazing is kind of the global communities that are built online. And so even if you've never met someone in person, you can become very good friends with them, you can have a close, connected relationship with them on the internet, whether that is like a shared community via Instagram, on Twitter. I know Reddit, I don't personally use Reddit, a lot of other folks use Reddit, Tumblr, there are a lot of ways to like create virtual communities. And understanding that those virtual communities are real, I think is one of the important distinctions between, you know, millennials, I grew up using the internet versus baby boomers, you know, Gen X, older generations that didn't necessarily grow up. Like as kids using the internet to create communities. I think that things can move a lot faster. I mean, we saw the very beginning of I feel like kind of the social upheaval of our generation, I mean, social upheaval is something that is constant in every generation. But one of the things that stands out is Arab Spring, like that is a movement that existed and was propagated by online communication in a way that no one had ever seen before.

Unknown Speaker 23:08

I think like the

Mallika Sarma 23:10

ability to organize, protest, and to and to organize, collective grassroots movements to demand change, I think is facilitated by kind of these shared virtual communities and the rapid communication that comes with it. There's also the downside of kind of the dark side of all of that of using it to track individuals and target them, which is really horrible and terrible, but and also, you have the manipulation of these communities, which is start like very stark when you look at like the 2016 election and the kinds of stuff that they're writing against for the 2020 election, and talking about, you know, different government interference and in these kinds of communities and communication. Um, but I think like one of the, one of the beautiful things, so I would say like, my favorite thing that has that I have encountered and stumbled upon is kind of the South Asian diaspora art


that is very strong on Instagram and Twitter, and I think Tumblr also, but it's a community of artists and, you know, just young people that are interested and excited about being part of the South Asian diaspora and are happy to engage in difficult conversations about what it means to be part of the South Asian diaspora. Many of us who are millennials grew up in the shadow of our, from our grandparents era of partition, and have really rampant post colonial consequences of British colonialism throughout the south south Asian subcontinent. And, you know, we grew up hearing among our older family members that the distaste which I feel like is a is a major under exaggeration, between different, you know, nation states. But India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc, that, you know as two generations removed from partition and like past independence past British colonialism we can recognize as the product of vicious, violent colonial works by the British Empire, and the repercussions that come from that, and recognizing a shared community among all South Asians. And I mean, this is my own perspective, this is not speaking for everyone by any means. But I think that there's a lot more kind of cohesiveness and understanding and fraternity between folks from different parts of South Asia, then there may have been in older generations because we recognize the violence of British colonialism. And so and that's something that really only exists, because I think of virtual communities. So you're able to kind of connect with people that you've never would have before, because they're not in your immediate circle, because, you know, they're not the kids of the parents that your parents hang out with, etc. But you know, things like art and music, everyone can appreciate we have a shared history, and that we have a shared history and suppression and colonization and, you know, fighting back against that in recognizing what things were


rather than, you know, actual inherent

inherent hate between religious groups, for example. I think that that is something that's really beautiful and amazing that has come out of these virtual communities. Is this kind of post colonial, anti colonial down with the British Empire connection? Okay.

Malini Sarma 26:56

I can see that passion against British colonialism there?

Mallika Sarma 26:59

Oh, yes, I have a lot of feelings about it.

Malini Sarma 27:02

So I'm looking back at your journey. So far, knowing what you know, now, what would you have told your younger self? Is there anything that you would have changed about yourself?

Unknown Speaker 27:17

Well, I

Mallika Sarma 27:18

would say one is that I should have taken more math classes.

Malini Sarma 27:22

I'm sure other Indian parents. I told

Mallika Sarma 27:27

I, I really,

I was actually pretty good at math. But then I was around a lot of people that made me feel really dumb when I did math. And I didn't like to feel dumb. And so I just took as minimal net level of math classes as I needed. But math is like a language. And I think that that's something that is important to remember. And so it's easier to learn it all in one straight chunk, as opposed to having to go back and try and learn it. I think, actually, languages in general, learning at young and learning it at high volume is probably better rather than learning it post hoc. I think that would that's one thing, it but i think that that also ties to like this general trend of like, doing what you want, and not getting influenced or feeling shamed into doing things you don't want to do or doing things you feel like you should do, and not necessarily things you actually want to do.

I think that

growing up as a millennial, where it feels like you're just going into one crisis after another, it really shapes your perspective on like, why you do things in the first place. Like if you're, you know, going back to my earlier statement, if you're not doing something that helped help the world and make it a better place, what's the point, and if you don't enjoy what you're doing, also, what's the point because there are lots of different ways you can help the world and there are lots of ways that you can, like do it in a way that makes you feel happy and fulfilled, they are not mutually exclusive by any means. And if for whatever reason you feel like they are it means like, you have not explored enough, and you can probably explore a little bit more just gonna be a little bit more creative with that. But life is too short, and you don't know what's going to happen. So you might as well do something you want to do, as opposed to doing nothing. And like if you're going to be miserable, doing something that's not helping the world. Why, like if you've decided that you're going to be you're not going to contribute, then you might as well just go not contribute at a beach instead, instead of like, I don't know, leaching the earth of resources are whatever, at least you're not doing harm, you know, just go hang out at the beach and live your best life instead. So, I think that that's, I think that if I were to go back and tell myself, I would just tell myself to be I don't know if more unapologetic that I already was as a kid, but I would probably go with that. I also think that I would I would encourage my former herself to continue picking up, you know, skills that des skills I wanted to pick up just because I was interested in them not because I felt like they were going to take me anywhere. So like,

Unknown Speaker 30:11

things like

Mallika Sarma 30:12

sewing, which was something I just really enjoyed doing. It's not like, you know, I was like, maybe I'll become a fashion designer, but I also just like making my own clothes, it's just an important skill to have. And there's nothing wrong with having a skill or learning something, just because you're interested, it doesn't have to have like an output, I think that there's oftentimes a pressure that, like, you must be productive, and always and you must be excellent and always being productive. But

Unknown Speaker 30:35

you don't have to be you can be like,

Mallika Sarma 30:38

you can, as long as you find your excellent in one way, if there's something that gives you joy, it's okay, if you're mediocre at something that gives you joy. So, I know that something is very difficult, especially for me to deal with my biggest, my biggest fear is mediocrity, and not being able to contribute. But I think that it's important to cut yourself some slack. Like, for example, I am learning I'm teaching myself how to play piano, and I'm very, very bad at it very bad at it.

Unknown Speaker 31:07

But it's okay, because I

Mallika Sarma 31:08

really like it. And it's really fun to make up random songs that don't make any sense. And to learn something and to and to push myself. So yeah, I think those are the things I would tell my former self or herself younger self.

Malini Sarma 31:23

So um, you are working on the you always wanted to be an astronaut ever since you were very, very young. Yeah, everything that you're doing pretty much, whether consciously or unconsciously, has been working towards, you know, that goal going into space? So talking to me looking at where you are now. And where you were talking to what would you want to shout out to, you know, young girls who want to who are starting on their journey on science, or the young kid, you know, like young kids who want to be astronauts, what would you tell them?

Mallika Sarma 32:03

I mean, so I have, I have done a lot of, you know, work in terms of like, doing what I can to become the best in my field, as like a, as a scientist, as a human biologist, and also done a lot of con have been pursuing a lot of conversations with folks that are in positions that I would like to see myself in. And I think that like, kind of what I was talking about before about, like, take pickup skills, because you're interested in them. And like, you never know, when a skill is going to be useful. That's one thing that's really important. But in the conversations I've had with folks, conversations with folks is actually something that is critical, like developing your network. And like networking, sounds really sleazy, and gross, but it's not it's like, you know, being friends with people and talking to people and being kind to them, and maintaining connections with them, not because you need something, but because like, people are amazing. And humans are literally built to have connections with other humans, like, I can tell you a whole, you can go into like the evolutionary mechanisms of human behavior and human contact, we're not going to do that today.

Unknown Speaker 33:16

But like,

Mallika Sarma 33:18

don't be afraid to talk to people. There's a small


of folks that are real a******s. And you don't want to talk to them anyways. But most people are pretty nice, and they're willing to help you and to be kind and whatever. I think another thing that is really critical for young women who want to go into science, who want to be astronauts, etc, is that you can never divorce science,


political ness. And from social context, science is always

political. And

it is extremely important that folks that are going into science that are going to engineering that are going into disciplines that often say you don't need the humanities, you don't need the social sciences, you don't need ethics,

to 100% take all of those classes.

You are You are a human that is doing science, you are a human doing engineering, you're a human doing math, whatever. And so if you don't understand the consequences of the of the questions that you're pursuing, if you don't understand the humanity, of the the kinds of actions that you're doing, then you have no business. Absolutely no business being a scientist, I feel really strongly about that. I think that kind of the, the degradation of that's the right word, but like the dismissal, I think dismissals are better, where the dismissal of humanity is the dismissal of Social Sciences, philosophy, etc. in pursuit of becoming the best scientific mind is utter and total garbage you if you do not understand what it means to be human, if you don't understand what it means To live in a society and to live with other people, and to take care of other people, then you have no business having large amounts of money and you have no business, making big scientific discoveries. And I feel very, very strongly about that. And so that would probably be my advice is to make sure you take that part of it seriously as well. Because it not only makes you a better scientist, but it makes you a better person. And in the end, that's what actually matters.

Malini Sarma 35:28

Awesome. I'm sure there are lots of young girls who think exactly like you. And I'm sure the rest of the millennial group are probably just waiting to hear what you have to say about this. So thank you very much, Mallika. I really appreciate your coming and spending the time to talk to me, and I will talk to you soon. Welcome.

Unknown Speaker 35:48


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Hello. I am Malini. I am a dancer, world traveler and storyteller. I am a hard core fan of chai and anything hot. I am always looking for new adventures and would rather be outside than inside.

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